Zhen Chen: Ergo: New Music For Piano & Chinese Folk Instruments
Navona Records

East meets West on this splendid collection by Zhen Chen, a New York-based composer whose music both merges the distinctive sonorities of traditional Chinese instrumentation with piano and blends the ancient folk and melodic traditions of Chinese music with a chamber-based style emblematic of Western musical culture. Of course, any recording that augments piano with the pipa, a four-stringed, mandolin-like instrument, the erhu, a bowed, two-stringed instrument, and traditional Chinese vocalizing can't help but establish an immediate through-line to the music of Chen's ancestors. Yet in fashioning the album's ten pieces as concise, piano-centered songs, an equally strong connection is made to American songwriting traditions, and further to that, two songs, “Turpan Tango” and “Dance Floor Banter,” are based on Western dance forms, the tango (obviously) and the waltz. Chen's refined harmonic sensibility and entrancing melodic expressions give his music ample charm and make the recording, his Navona debut, all the more appealing.

“Jade” initiates the album with a haunting setting for piano and pipa, Chen's graceful piano providing sympathetic accompaniment to Jiaju Shen's exquisite pipa playing. In contrast to the opener's intensely melancholic character, the breezy “Springfield” conjures the image of carefree times spent outdoors in its arrangement for piano, pipa, and erhu. The latter's capacity for evoking sorrow is showcased during “Regret” and “Longing” when Feifei Yang exploits the erhu's vocal-like cry to generate powerful emotional effects; peaceful by comparison is “Stroll By the Lake,” whose lulling vocal, pipa, and piano melodies collectively establish a mood of tranquility.

Breaking up the album's largely instrumental flow are vocal settings featuring Yixuan Pang, whose contributions to “Plum Blossom Chant” and “Lament” impress as much as Chen's piano playing. Ergo takes a delicious turn when the insistent rhythms of “Turpan Tango” nudge it in an earthier direction without sacrificing any of the composer's natural refinement in the process and when the subsequent “Dance Floor Banter” perpetuates its sibling's playful side. Though Chen's guests make critical contributions to the album, it's fitting that it should close on “Recollection” with the pianist alone.

Ergo is an album of many moods, from free-spirited joy to heartfelt sadness, and to Chen's credit, he honours the traditions of Chinese folk music in a way that feels authentic yet not retrograde or insincere. Given its forty-two-minute running time, it's easy to imagine the entire album being presented in New York as one-half of an evening concert devoted to contemporary Chinese music, and even easier to envision an attendee, thoroughly captivated by Chen's chamber settings, excited to acquire a copy of Ergo after leaving the theatre that evening.

April 2017